By dan cava
April 6, 2012
In order to review the 3D re-release of Titanic, I first had to get permission from my younger brother, Adam. You see, when the big boat movie first surfaced (ahem) in 1997, Adam and I made an agreement—known between the two of us as “The Pact”—to never watch the movie for our entire lives unless the other person watched it first. Which is impossible, see? The result of The Pact has been that Adam and I are among the last living Americans who have spent the last decade and a half in a state of perpetual Titanic-lessness. We were not the kings of the world, our hearts did not go on, and we were proud of it.
Well, Adam was proud of it. As my love of movies grew over the years, my intense curiosity about the record-breaking phenomenon (11 Oscars and, until Avatar, the highest box-office gross) grew along with it. At film school, it became absurdly difficult to avoid the most popular movie of all time. I was actually required at one point to watch Titanic for a class, and I managed to pass the final exam without answering any questions from personal experience. Thus, when the opportunity arose to review the movie for RELEVANT, I had to get permission from Adam. I was summarily released from The Pact on the conditions that 1) I mention him in the article (Hi, Adam) and 2) I wouldn’t tell his wife until afterward (Hi, Veronica).
And so it was that history and adolescent shortsightedness conspired to send me into the movie theater a few days ago with a rare cinematic gift—the privilege of seeing Titanic for the very first time, on a big screen, fifteen years removed from the hype. Normally it would be an odd thing to review a movie a generation too late, like telling people the odds on a horse a week after the race. But because I’d never seen Titanic and no one talks about it now like they did when I was 16, I got the chance to just ... watch the movie. And l loved it.
Since most of you have seen the movie already, we’ll hit the 3D part first. It’s fine—forgettable, but not in a bad way. It’s one of the best conversions from 2D so far, but that isn’t saying much. Unlike Avatar, James Cameron’s 3D opus, Titanic wasn’t designed with stereoscopic wonders in mind. After-the-fact 3D conversions are notoriously dark, and I would have loved for Titanic to have been a little brighter, for its Oscar-winning photography to have glowed and glistened a little more. It’s hard to tell if that was the movie’s fault or the movie theater’s fault for having a mediocre projector. Still, the vertigo-inducing high shots were a little more vertiginous, the huge ballroom shots were little more cavernous, and the dialogue shots a little more ... well, the 3D didn’t really affect the dialogue scenes. Either way, it was still a nice enough way to see the movie.
I think the real success of Titanic is that it never tries to be anything other than a universally accessible blockbuster. Not everything about Titanic is perfect, but everything fits perfectly together. The sound design is immersive and detailed. The special effects—a now-rare blend of CGI, models and practical effects—are exceptional by 1997 standards and at least impressive by today’s. Gorgeous sets and costumes surround the actors, whose performances are as broad as the screenplay they serve. Some might see Cameron’s heavy-handed dialogue and swooning camera moves as flaws, but I see them as part of a recipe that calls for nothing but equal parts spectacle, romance and suspense. Titanic isn’t a movie that needs to be cool or subtle because it’s pretty much everything else.
Titanic in 2012 is, as I’m sure the 2D version was in 1997, marvelous and grand entertainment. It’s a straightforward story told in skillfully broad, melodramatic strokes, in what USA Today aptly called, “an earnest lack of irony.” There’s no hidden meaning here, just large emotions on a large ship. Jack Dawson and Rose DeWitt Bukater’s romance (enacted by Leo and Kate, in case you’d forgotten) is not a postmodern story of lost identity. It’s not a metaphor for youth being trampled by the burgeoning forces of technology. It’s ultimately not even a rich versus poor thing, although there’s plenty of socioeconomic tension in the film. It’s a love story. It’s a boy and a girl who are fortunate to find each other on the most unfortunate boat in history. You hope like the dickens that they will both survive, but alas ... and yet their love survives. Isn’t that wonderful? Well, I thought it was wonderful.
Which brings me to what may be the one original observation made possible by seeing Titanic in 2012: At fifteen years old, Titanic may already be a relic of a time gone by. Not a time in early twentieth-century history, not a moment in movie-technology history, but a moment in audience history. I would never have thought this if it hadn’t been for the reactions of the people around me in the movie theater. While most of us sat enraptured and overwhelmed, there was a constant stream of laughter and “Seriously?”s coming from pockets of the audience. When I looked to see who it was, I shocked to see that it wasn’t the frat boys sitting to my right, nor the twentysomethings beneath me, nor the mother/daughter team near the front. It was the high school girls! The very demographic that poured over half a billion dollars into the box offices of 1997 by seeing the movie three, five, even ten times was the one heaping scorn on Titanic in 2012. What could have happened that turned the bread and butter of Titanic into its greatest detractors? In 1997, many people (not all of them girls, apparently; the audience I sat in was at least 40 percent guys) had intensely personal experiences with the movie, but perhaps that was before their opinions were posted on social media and commented on by everyone they ever met. While Titanic’s un-cynical hugeness made it immensely popular when it was first released, I wonder if its lack of coolness could have weathered the pounding that its fan base would now have taken on Facebook. I felt that what I was witnessing was not a pure reaction to the movie, but rather a kind meta-reaction to the film’s previous popularity—a reaction to everyone else’s reaction, not unlike a comment trail under a blog or status update or (gulp) Internet movie review.
Maybe I’m thinking too hard. Thank goodness for immersive, old-fashioned, no-heavy-thought-required escapes like Titanic—still an enormous and rapturous experience for everyone but 15-year-old girls and my brother, Adam.
Dan Cava is an independent filmmaker and the co-host of the Moviemakers podcast, available soon on iTunes. Dan's directorial work can be seen at www.vimeo.com/dancava. He writes film reviews for RELEVANT magazine.